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How to Weave Ecosystem Services into Impact Assessments

The Wayuu people in northern Colombia depend on shrubland for grazing their livestock. These herds serve as the Wayuus’ main source of income and food, and this is partly why they depend so heavily on the existence and condition of shrubland ecosystems. But livestock are also used to pay dowries or make amends, playing a major role in facilitating social interactions between families and clans. If an oil and gas project adversely affects the shrubland ecosystem, it could impact not only the Wayuus’ income and protein intake, but the social bonds that hold these communities together.

Most planners fail to account for the multiple—and sometimes underappreciated—benefits that people derive from their environment, a concept known as ecosystem services. While new Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) standards require impact practitioners to account for ecosystem services when evaluating a proposed project’s potential impacts, many lack a methodological approach that would enable them to properly integrate social and environmental issues.

Until now, that is. WRI’s new guide, Weaving Ecosystem Services in Impact Assessment: A Step-by-Step Method, aims to highlight the interdependence of development projects, people, and the environment. The guide helps impact practitioners and project developers evaluate the social implications of impacts on ecosystems brought by highways, dams, oil and gas wells, and other such projects. By systematically incorporating a consideration of ecosystem services into environmental and social impact assessments, planners can mitigate negative impacts on ecosystem services while also achieving project objectives.

How the Guide Works

Most impact practitioners currently conduct environmental and social assessments separately—a process that fails to adequately evaluate ecosystem services. Take the case of the proposed oil and gas project in Wayuu territory: A traditional ESIA would focus primarily on the fact that the oil and gas project would encroach upon the grazing lands of some families. Practitioners would propose as a mitigation measure financial compensation to affected families for lost income from the sale of goat milk and meat. Although this measure would provide compensation for financial loss, it would fail to account for—or prevent—other detriments, such as damaging the social fabric of the Wayuu community.

6-Step Process

WRI’s methodology enables ESIA teams to adopt a more holistic perspective and identify, assess, and mitigate the impacts of the oil and gas project on all of the benefits the Wayuu people derive from the shrubland ecosystem and their livestock.

A 6-Step Process

WRI’s method proposes six steps to weave ecosystem services throughout the ESIA process. These steps help the ESIA team to identify the ecosystem services a project impacts or on which its operations depend; assess the extent of project’s impact/dependence; and maintain affected communities’ well-being while ensuring project performance.

Development projects like dams, highways, and oil and gas wells are immensely complex. Analyzing a project through two disparate lenses—through a strictly environmental or social lens—-fails to take into account the full breadth of a project’s potential risks and opportunities. Incorporating ecosystem services into impact assessments can help ensure sustainable development by ensuring that projects benefit people and the planet.

  • LEARN MORE: This report is tailored to a broad audience, including project developers who may not conduct ESIAs themselves, but need to understand the process. A more technical version will be published later this year. Meanwhile, we encourage interested parties to contact us for any questions or comments on this report. (Contact: Florence Landsberg, flandsberg@wri.org).

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